Jon Thysell

Father. Engineer. Retro games. Ukuleles. Nerd.

Month: September, 2012

My heart was cast in the Hawaiian islands

By association with nature’s enormities, a man’s heart may truly grow big also. – Lin Yutang, The Importance of Living

I grew up immersed in the culture of Hawaiʻi. My family is Native Hawaiian on my mother’s side; my recently passed grandmother was 75% Hawaiian, which makes my mother, siblings, and myself all hapa haole. My mother grew up in Oʻahu before the family uprooted for the mainland; there they quickly built ties with the local Polynesian community. She started dancing hula as a little girl, and grew up to teach hula as a kumu hula for many different hālaus.

I myself have never lived in Hawaiʻi, though I’ve gone to Oʻahu on many extended vacations. The longest of which was three weeks back in 2000: two with family, and a third spent camping at Camp Pupukea. There I focused on learning traditional Hawaiian skills (as opposed to the regular Scout stuff) and earned the Hawaiiana Award. That’s probably the closet thing to work I’ve done in the islands, and trust me, once your feet touch sand, work is the last thing on your mind.

Most trips I’ve gone with family, and the trips have ranged in activity from an elaborate multi-family reunion (all housed in a multi-million dollar mansion), to spending a week in a three-room concrete condo barbecuing and flying a kite on the beach. But whatever the action, there’s no such thing as a bad trip to the islands.

There’s something ethereal about Hawaiʻi, a slight hum and a heartbeat I can’t explain, something that hits me in the chest the moment I land and whose throb beckons me back as soon as I leave. I feel at home with the sun, sea, salt and surf- a unique connection with the land that I don’t feel any where else. When you’re in Hawaiʻi, it’s what defines you; your cares, every measure by which you evaluate your life, simply melts away. So though I say my soul was forged in the redwood forest, my heart was definitely cast in Hawaiian islands.

As this post goes out, I’ll be on a non-stop flight to Oʻahu with girlfriend Anne for a ten-night vacation; my first “real” vacation since I moved to Washington, and Anne’s first time in the islands. I’m going to have to balance the desire to just kick back on the beach with showing her all the best “touristy” sights: the Aloha Stadium Swap Meet, the Polynesian Cultural Center, Hanauma Bay, Nuʻuanu Pali, and of course, Matsumoto Shave Ice.

Anne wants to swim with turtles- yes, we’ll do that too.

Aloha!

/jon

Taoism and the role of human institutions

Every human institution can be broken down into two parts: its inward, primary essence and its outward, secondary accouterments. Learning to distinguish between these primary and secondary things is an important skill for Taoists.

In our society, the essence of any institution is much more important than the physical trappings that surround it. Chuangtse says:

The primary things should stand at the top and secondary things stand at the bottom.

The text gives several examples of institutions and their secondary things, such as the mourning of the dead:

Weeping and mourning and the wearing of hemp clothes and hemp hemming and the gradations in the length of mourning are secondary things in the expression of sorrow.

Though reflecting the ancient Chinese culture of the text’s origin, we can make clear parallels to the modern Western institution of mourning. Here, the wearing of black clothes, the funeral, the wake, all of these things are secondary when mourning the dead: the important, primary thing is the expression of sorrow.

On the other end of the spectrum, an example can be made of the institution of marriage. On one level we have two people committing their love to a stronger relationship, and the joining of two families. On another we have the costumes, the rings, the cake, the registry, the party, the dancing, and the ceremony. Which of the two groups is more important?

The difference is the thing and its representation. Love and commitment are the primary essence of marriage; the rings, which only represent that love and commitment, are secondary accouterments. Accouterments that aren’t instinctual:

These … secondary things require the employment of the mind and conscious planning before they can be carried out.

There is a broader Taoist thread against such materialism, something I mentioned in passing when I asserted that Taoists value direct experience over formal education. While the primary things are often emotional, experiential, and culturally agnostic (like love), the secondary things are often material, learned, and culturally specific (like the exchange of rings).

The secondary things don’t come to us naturally; such traditions are passed down from generation to generation by education, often in the form of stories. Can anyone deny the influence of fairy tales and childhood stories on our expectations of wedding ceremonies? On the whole institution of marriage?

Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t to say that our traditions, these seemingly unessential secondary things, are altogether bad. They don’t need to be discarded, just not put at the forefront of our minds:

The ancients had this body of the unessential knowledge, but they did not put it first…

This “unessential knowledge” helps define a culture, and is a part of all human societies. Problems only arise when those secondary things are held with higher importance than the primary essences which they represent.

We know this to be true, in mourning, love, and even telling stories: that when we follow traditions for traditions’ sake, and only “go through the motions”, we risk losing what’s really important.

A marriage without a strong sense of love and commitment won’t last, no matter how lavish and perfect the ceremony. Without true sorrow, going to a funeral and wearing black and acting somber is just that: acting.

We see this often in religious ceremony, and we all know people who only go through the motions. Remember, the moral values of a religion are more important than the details of their ceremonies; the meaning behind the teachings more important than the teachings themselves.

We need the secondary things because they’re an easy shorthand for us to express ourselves, and to teach our values to our children. They’re loose outlines and reminders of what’s really important in our lives. Taoism can’t and doesn’t require the elimination of such accouterments; it only asks that people understand that they are in fact secondary, and to not elevate their importance beyond the essential things which they represent.


An earlier draft of this article was originally published February 01, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here revised and expanded.

/jon

What I use in 2012, Part 2: Software

I like to see how people work; especially for those whose work is mostly on the computer. In part 1 of this series, I listed all of the tech hardware I use at home; now I’ll list all of the software I use on a regular basis.

Note: I don’t endorse anything here beyond the implicit “this is what I actually use at home.”

The Basics

OS: Ubuntu w/ Gnome Shell

I played with Linux as far back as high-school, but despite multiple partitions and many early distributions, I always came back to Windows. In college I realized that if I was serious about learning Linux, I needed to use it exclusively. I liked Debian, but it was always just a bit out of date, and I hated that it installed a lot of redundant stuff (ten text editors, five desktop environments, etc).

Then I found Ubuntu.

I started with Ubuntu 5.10 “Breezy Badger” and Gnome with it; and despite some early dalliances with Ubuntu’s many derivations, I’ve been an Ubuntu user ever since. I was skeptical of the trends post-Gnome 2; Unity was slow, customization-poor and untested, while Gnome 3 was taking a risky move away from the Windows-clone icons, desktop and taskbar. I loved the abandoned pre-Unity “netbook launcher”, so I understood that a new UI paradigm might not be a bad thing- so I buckled down and tested both Unity and Gnome 3 extensively to see what fit.

I fell in love with Gnome 3 and the Gnome Shell. It lets me manage all of my personal work effortlessly, all from one laptop screen. Multiple virtual desktops, with previews exposed by the Super key, along with search and a preview of my open apps. I prefer it over every desktop UI that I’ve ever used. (Sounds like something worthy of discussing in its own post).

Browser: Firefox

I have jumped around from browser to browser over the years. In the early days I evangelized about Opera– but then everyone copied their feature set, and opened themselves in ways that Opera just couldn’t keep up with. I lived in the extension-heavy hell of Firefox for years, then leaned down with a focus on bookmarklets, then jumped to Chrome as the hot new thing.

I switched back to Firefox at the beginning of the year, wondering how far they’d come since I jumped to Chrome. I was very impressed. I have very few extensions; five in fact, and I sync all of my computers with the same settings. It’s not a memory hog anymore, and as far as I can tell, it’s no slower than Chrome. Chrome is extensible too- but Firefox has just the right set of tweaks that I want.

Productivity: LibreOffice

I started with OpenOffice.org even before I switched to Linux full-time; who didn’t want a free office suite with MS-compatibility and PDF export? I’m a big supporter of open formats, and OOo gave us the Open Document standard. One of my most popular software projects is my weight-tracking Open Document Spreadsheet, Weight Tracker ODS. When the majority of the development group moved to LibreOffice, I went with them. I use it for all of my regular Office needs.

Productivity: Microsoft Office Web Apps

I prefer open-source but I’m not evangelical; all I care is that I have the tools I need to get my work done. I use Microsoft Office often enough when I’m on Windows machines, but with the exception of OneNote (don’t get me started on how much I love OneNote for note organizing) there’s nothing about Office that really enables me beyond what LibreOffice offers.

However I have come to be blown away by the Microsoft Office Web Apps. I keep a few documents saved to SkyDrive (namely a couple OneNote notebooks), and it amazes me how much I can do with them in a browser. Plus I can access those docs on my phone. (Sounds like I need to write a post about how awesome OneNote can be).

Email: Gmail

I’ve used Gmail since college, primarily though the web interface, though occasionally I’ve used IMAP clients. I love its features, I love its hacks, and I couldn’t live without its spam filter. It maybe misses one or two emails a year- and I put my email address up everywhere, without obfuscation.

Chat: Google Talk

I don’t IM as much as I used to, but these days when I do, it’s on Google Talk. I think Jabber is a pretty sweet protocol- and having a Google account nabs this for free. I’ve also found that it has the absolute best AV stack I’ve ever used; it sacrifices clarity for faster frame-rates, which in real-life, low-bandwidth conversations, is a much better trade-off. I don’t need to see every pore to read someone’s facial expression: a smooth frame-rate without skipping or audio hiccups means I can follow all of the non-verbal communication and everything feels much more natural, even if it’s out of focus.

File Sync: Dropbox

I use Dropbox for syncing a select few files that I want on every machine, like my encrypted password database, or when I’m lazy for a quick transfer. I don’t trust them for anything else, as they don’t encrypt user’s files well enough. (They save space by not duplicating files that multiple people have, which they know because they keep a copy of the keys so they can decrypt your files.)

Password Management: KeePass

I’ve been using a password manager for a decade, and I use KeePass because it works well and has clients on a ton of platforms.

RSS: Google Reader

I read a lot of things via RSS, and I’ve used Google Reader for years. The web client is great on the PC, and pretty much every mobile ecosystem has a compatible client, so I don’t have to keep track of multiple subscription lists.

Finances: GnuCash

I have OCD when it comes to balancing my checkbook, and for years now have been using the free GnuCash to do so.

Social: HootSuite

I’m on Twitter and Facebook, and believe me, I’ve tried every possible app on every platform I have access to. Right now I live inside HootSuite. It lets me see only the columns I want, and most useful, it lets me space out my posts with AutoSchedule so I don’t flood my followers every time I hop on Google Reader and start sharing links.

Entertainment

Ebooks

Management: Calibre

Calibre is an amazing piece of software. It works with practically every e-reading device, lets you format back and forth between formats, pull down metadata, create new ebooks; the list goes on and on. I keep it running almost all the time, because then I can browse my library remotely with my phone, and pick and choose what books to download when I want to read them.

Really, once you have Calibre, you don’t need any other ebook software on your PC.

Store: Smashwords

I prefer to buy my books on Smashwords whenever possible. You can’t beat DRM-free with access to every format. It’s why I chose to sell my own ebooks through them too.

Store: Kobo Books

When I need to buy more “mainstream” books, I typically find them on Kobo for the same price as everyone else, but with the “benefit” that their DRM (though DRM is always a middle finger to paying customers) is the standard “every device can read it and it’s really easy to make go away” Adobe DRM. Nothing fancy.

Video

Playback: VLC

VLC has handled every media file I’ve thrown at it for a decade. No extra codecs to install, no hoops to jump through- it just works. If you’re new to computers, and the web, you have no idea what it means to have a video player that can, you know, actually play video files. It was the wild west a decade ago.

Encoding: Handbrake

I rip digital backups of my legally-owned DVDs for easy searching and playback on all of my devices, including my Xbox 360. Handbrake enables me to do that perfectly.

Streaming: uShare

I keep all of my video files on my Ubuntu-based home server, and with uShare, I can play those videos on my Xbox 360. It’s wonderful.

Music

Playback: Rhythmbox

Though my music lives on my home server, I do keep a full copy local to my laptop so that I can disconnect and still listen to my music. I’ve used Rhythmbox for years and love it for organizing and playing my music.

Encoding: abcde & lame

Yes, I’m one of those few guys that still buys CDs. And when I do, the very first thing I do is rip them to my hard drive and throw the disc into a box in the closet for safe-keeping. I use abcde because it’s set to the lame settings I like, and it’s one command from CD to MP3s.

Tags: EasyTAG

Everyone has their own rules about MP3 tags, even if the rule is “don’t care as long as they play and I know what they are”. I’m very meticulous about my collection (read: OCD), and EasyTAG rocks for getting those unruly music files under control.

Streaming: Subsonic

Subsonic runs on my home server, and the free version provides a web interface that lets me to browse and stream my music, create playlists, from any computer with a browser. Even from multiple computers at the same time, and with auto-transcoding for different file types and for different machines (if say you want to minimize bandwidth at work).

There are even a bunch of native clients on different platforms to let me access my Subsonic server, and even video support via flash (ala YouTube) if you pay for it. Sometimes, a paid program just really is worth it, and I’ve never regretted the purchase. I’ve tried all the open-source alternatives, but none come close.

Store: Amazon MP3

When I do buy digital music, I buy MP3, and I buy from Amazon. No special client, just give me my files. Like I said above, I usually buy CDs, but every now and then I see an album I’m on the fence about, and the MP3s are usually cheaper. It’s been a slow acclimation for me to buy digital files without the backup of a physical item, but Amazon does a good job.

Software Development

IDE: MonoDevelop

Working in the software industry means I have to use a certain set of technology for my job, and a certain list of programming languages. I also program way more at work than I do at home, so those languages tend to take precedence for me to know. And for a while now, the language to know has been C#.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not complaining- in fact I love C# and the .Net stack. It just doesn’t seem very Linux.

The real problem is, despite all of its power tools, especially for developers, I have never been happy with any of the IDEs for developing in any language in Linux. It seems either you use some variant of Eclipse (which I hate), or a text editor plus a bunch of command-line tools.

Then they made MonoDevelop… and it is just glorious.

I live in Visual Studio at work, and in MonoDevelop I feel right at home. It makes compatible binaries, uses compatible project files, has Intellisense and nUnit and a real debugger- it’s basically everything I need in one place with nothing I don’t. It makes cross-platform development fun and not a game of “find the tool”.

Text Editor: Gedit

When I’m in the GUI and I need a quick edit, I use Gedit. It’s got just enough spunk for what I need.

Text Editor: Vim

When I’m working in the command-line, I use Vim to edit text files. Emacs users… to each his own.

Source Control: Bazaar

I plan on writing more in the future about Bazaar, but essentially it’s a cross-platform VCS that works in any workflow configuration, or several all at once. I use it for my little projects on my machine, then when I want it on my own server repository, and then again when I want to show off to the world on Launchpad. And every time all I have to do is copy the repository over, then pull down a new branch, a checkout branch, whatever makes the most sense for the project.

Writing

Note: I plan on writing about the open-source software I use for writing in greater detail at a later date.

Writing: FocusWriter

Once a year when I sit down to write a new manuscript, I send the developer of FocusWriter a donation. It’s customized to look exactly how I need it to, with progress bars and word sprints and timers and statistics- all of which melt away when I actually write, giving me a distraction free zone to get the words down.

Editing: Geany

Geany is technically an text-editor / lightweight IDE, but I can’t use it for that anymore, cause I’ve customized it so much to support my writing. I may spend a month in FocusWriter to get that first draft, but the next year is in Geany making it shine.

Notes: Zim

I mentioned OneNote above for note organizing, and while it’s true I do use it for some initial story brainstorming, any big writing project eventually makes its way into Zim. It’s cross-platform, uses plain text files, and even uses Bazaar for version control. Right now the entirety of my Guineawick Tales notes and plans are in one giant Zim wiki. I find it indispensable for keeping track of everything.

Web Services

Hosting: WordPress.com

I started using WordPress in the early days of blogging, installed by myself on hosting I paid for while I was in school. I’ve been in and out of its code, and customized the hell out of it for previous websites. Nowadays, I let WordPress.com handle all of the dirty work, pay for enough customization to make my site pretty, and let them take care of the rest. Which they do really, really, well.

Domain Registrar: Namecheap

I’ve been buying domains from Namecheap for years. They’re not always the absolute cheapest, but their dashboard gives me everything I want, with no funny business.

Phone

OS: Windows Phone 7.5

It surprised me that Windows Phone 7 really lived up to its “you don’t need apps, everything is built-in” mantra. In fact I have very few apps on my phone, nowhere as many as I did on Android or webOS. Email, Facebook, Twitter, photos, music, video, whatever- the base OS does pretty much every single thing I need it do, with just a couple of exceptions, which I list next.

Ebooks: Freda+

Freda is the new standard by which I hold all mobile ebook reader apps. It’s silky smooth to use, customized just how I like it, and lets me grab books over the net from my laptop running Calibre. I’ve read a dozen books on it this year, and I love it.

RSS: Nextgen Reader

I need my RSS fix, and Nextgen Reader gives it to me on the go. It syncs with my Google Reader account, so I don’t have separate lists of (un)read content to maintain. Fast and easy to use.

Twitter: Twitter

I’ve tried every single Twitter client on the Windows Phone platform, paid and free, and every single one was either slow, bloated, had a funky UI, or was way too power-user for what I need. I’m not a social media maven, I just want all of the Twitter functionality in a fast client that looks good. Surprisingly, the official Twitter client works really well for my needs.

Everything Else

Most pieces of software are specialized tools (especially in the Linux world), the use of which depends on the kind of work you do regularly. I could write a post ten times as long with every piece of software I’ve used at one point or another for specific, one-time tasks, but that would be tiresome and probably a waste of time. (Of course, who knows if anyone even read this far).

“Too Long, Didn’t Read” Summary

I run Ubuntu at home, and I prefer to use open-source, cross-platform software whenever I can. I don’t like paying for software or services unless the value they provide clearly outstrips any free or roll-your-own alternatives. I avoid vendor lock-in like a plague, preferring file formats that I can crack if the software stops working.

And just like in part 1, remember: this is just what I use at home, not necessarily what I use in my job at Microsoft.

/jon

P.S. So what do you use at home? Leave a comment below!

Bushido in the workplace, or handling others’ mistakes

In Yamamoto Tsunetomo‘s Bushido text Hagakure, we find many examples of the behavior expected of samurai; several of which I find apply well in the workplace.

For example, when someone comes and rudely interrupts you, implicitly insisting that their business should be given priority, Tsunetomo suggests not becoming flustered:

At such times, the etiquette of a samurai is to calm himself and deal with the person in a good manner. To treat a person harshly is the way of middle class lackeys.

We all deal with minor annoyances at work, things too petty to bring to anyone’s attention. In another passage, Tsunetomo suggests letting those minor annoyances slide:

It is a fact that fish will not live where the water is too clear. But if there is duckweed or something, the fish will hide under its shadow and thrive. Thus, the lower classes will live in tranquility if certain matters are a bit overlooked or left unheard. This fact should be understood with regard to people’s conduct.

As if to emphasize the point, he even suggests lenient sentencing for criminals:

At the time of a deliberation of criminals, Nakano Kazuma proposed making the punishment one degree lighter than what would be appropriate. This is a treasury of wisdom that only he was the possessor of.

By sparing the worse sentence, a person is given the chance to redeem themselves. Later Tsunetomo says:

When intimate friends, allies, or people who are indebted to you have done some wrong, you should secretly reprimand them and intervene between them and society in a good manner.

You should erase a person’s bad reputation and praise him as a matchless ally and one man in a thousand. If you will thus reprimand a person in private and with good understanding, his blemish will heal and he will become good. If you praise a person, people’s hearts will change and an ill reputation will go away of itself.

I find this concept very useful, and in practice it comes up fairly often, especially in cross-team collaborative work. Every team has its ups and downs, times when some work harder than others. And there’s always a time when somebody, for whatever reason, just isn’t pulling their weight. What Tsunetomo is saying is, the way to correct that behavior is to give feedback in private, and give praise in public. Give the individual the chance to get back into alignment with the rest of the team, without damaging their reputation.

In cross-team endeavors, I remember this as “don’t air your dirty laundry”.  It doesn’t benefit anyone to complain about your team, or specific members of your team, to the other teams you’re working with. Deal with the problem internally, and always give others the impression that the team is doing just fine. A negative team image is not going encourage anyone to do their best work.

Similar advice is given to job seekers as “don’t complain about your last boss.” A potential employer will think twice about hiring someone so willing to throw others under the bus.

Of course, all of this is easy to follow if you yourself always pull your own weight. It’s even easier if, as a leader, you step back regularly and let the group take its victories. People, especially within your team, will recognize who did what, and if everyone follows the same philosophy, it’s only natural that you too will be recognized for your contributions, both within and outside of your team.

A samurai doesn’t let others’ self-importance fluster him, lets others’ small mistakes slide, gives leniency when the mistakes are large, and uses public praise with private reprimand to  straighten out those under him. So too can we use this as a model for how we handle others’ mistakes in the workplace.


An earlier draft of this article was originally published January 29, 2008 under a former pseudonym of mine. I rescued it with WXR to HTML, and I present it here revised and expanded.

/jon